Handlers' Blog

These will be the ramblings of our helpers and handlers - their chance to tell you about things from their perspective.  You will usually not find either myself or Emma here (whatever the sign off might say!).

.... but an octopus isn't a reptile!

posted 13 May 2017, 02:11 by Lucas Rudge   [ updated 13 May 2017, 02:47 ]

One of our handlers is a steampunk (for those of you who don't know what steampunk is, think retro-futurism), and through her we were extended an open invitation to attend the wonderful Surrey Steampunk Convivial, which now takes place three times a year in New Malden.


This is a very relaxed event for us (in fact we've been known to arrange ourselves around sofas) where we can take the time to talk to people at length about all sorts of things, and watch the activities - and even take part in some. It's not a great earner, but we view it as more of a day out. 

One of the recurring themes in steampunk is Cthulhu, a creature described by its creator H P Lovecraft as "A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind." A bit like this, really - a hand-crocheted version made by one of our handlers.

We took a few along to sell at the Convivial - and almost sold out! We also took a commission for bespoke Cthulhu wearing a fez. 

For the next Convivial, we made some small octopi that have flat undersides so they can sit flat on a shoulder, hat or bag. We also made a vendor tray so that we could have an itinerant Cthulhu seller.

The octopus, along with cogs and gears, is one of the images that has passed from steampunk into current popular culture, so we're now selling the octopi at all our fairs and events. They come in a large selection of colours (purple sparkly seems to be very popular) and a variety of sizes, but if anyone has a special request we can take commissions - striped body with tentacles in alternating colour - not a problem!  Hanging loop so it can be hung on the Christmas tree? Of course!


If dogs go to kennels and cats go to catteries .....

posted 26 Aug 2016, 07:10 by Lucas Rudge

For many people, going away on holiday means they have to find a kennel or cattery, pet sitter or neighbour to look after their pets for a fortnight – but when you have a large number of snakes and lizards, what do you do?

In fact, it’s quite straightforward, although a fair amount of preparation goes into it. A healthy snake can easily go without food for some time (ours are, in the main, fed every two weeks), so we try to feed them all between two and five days before we go. This gives them time to digest before we go – a snake can regurgitate two or three days after it’s been fed, and the last thing we want is to come home to a two-week-old, half-digested, rotten mouse! Spacing feeding over a few days makes it more manageable, and also means that if a snake refuses to eat on the first night we can try again the next night.

Feeding aside, we have to make sure that everyone has fresh water (multiple sources if possible, just in case the snake decides to sleep in its water bowl - or worse, pee in it!), and that each thermostat is working and correctly set. Special attention is given to any animal that has health issues, or has had a cold in the last few months.

Lizards aren’t quite so easy, but we don’t have so many. Heat and light has to be checked, of course, well in advance so that we can order and replace anything that looks as though it might fail. We have one “tropical” tank which has a humidity-controlled self-watering system so we make sure that the tank is full, and both Sam (the bearded dragon) and Cobalt (the blue tongued skink) have a large water bowl. Fresh greens and special high-nutrition insects are bought in and put into the vivariums as late as we can leave it – mainly because, once the insects are in we have to close the vivarium doors as quickly as possible and then cannot re-open them, or the food would fly out! Some of the insets are fly larvae which can still be eaten if they hatch out into flies, so they are basically a “slow-release” food. Sam seems to take this as an “all-you-can-eat” buffet, and charges around his vivarium trying to eat as much as possible.

Saphira the leopard gecko needs to be fed every couple of days, so she is the one animal who has to be found a home for the holiday, usually with one of our volunteers. Generally this goes very well, but one year she had an encounter with a cat (the cat came off worse).

I’m happy to say that all of this worked well this year, despite the heat, and came home to a house full of happy, healthy animals, and no bad smells!

It’s always a little stressful getting everything ready before we go, and worrying when we come home. It was so much easier when we just had two cats; they both had passports, and came with us!

"Why do I do this?"

posted 5 Jun 2016, 01:52 by Lucas Rudge   [ updated 5 Jun 2016, 01:53 ]

I seem to spend most of my weekends over the summer standing in a field somewhere with a couple of lizards (and occasionally some cornsnakes) talking to the public about them. Sometimes I get sunburnt, sometimes windblown, sometimes cold, and often muddy. Why do I do it?

Last weekend a couple in their twenties approached the stand. The man was fine with the snakes, but the woman didn't want to be anywhere near them. After some discussion, she came closer, and stretched out her arm, her hand, one finger. She was shaking violently, but turned her head away, and touched a snake for the first time. She was in floods of tears, and couldn't believe she had done it. 

The couple took a few steps away, and spoke quietly between themselves. 

Five minutes later they were back. "I have to SEE myself touching a snake". She was still shaking, but this time she did not turn her head away when she touched a snake again.

She conquered her fear. I don't think she'll be rushing back to hold one any time soon, but she did it, and can be proud of herself.


Yesterday we were at the St Christopher's Summer Fair (or, to give it its correct title, the St Christopher's Food Fair and Wild West Show). The stalls were close together, and it was clear that one of the ladies on the stall to our right was a little "disconcerted" at having live snakes so close.

We set up and took the first of the snakes and lizards out of their boxes. Immediately, the lady from the next stall was over. She had decided that she couldn't spend the whole afternoon worrying about snakes so close to her .... so she needed to touch one. 

She was surprised at how soft it was, not wet or slimy. And it didn't immediately try to bite her. So she stroked some more, then asked to hold it.

Some twenty minutes later, one of the other people from her stall called her back over to her own stall because she was needed.

It wasn't long before she was back - except this time, she didn't want to touch and hold little Sweeney; it was Citrine, our 12 foot albino Burmese python! 

And she returned several times during the afternoon to "borrow" a snake (and, later, a skink) to show her friends on her stall, and tell them all how lovely they were. Then, as we were packing up, she said she will contact the event organiser to ask if she can be next to us again next year!


So why do I do this? Because I give people the opportunity to do something they may never have done before. And sometimes, just sometimes, it's an awesome, terrifying, and wonderful experience.

And besides - I have a medal being being outstanding in a field with skinks!

A Different Rescue

posted 14 May 2016, 00:05 by Lucas Rudge   [ updated 14 May 2016, 00:05 ]

We never know what to expect next.

Yesterday evening, about five minutes before supper was ready, the phone rang. "I've been given your number by someone who said you might be able to help. I've found a tortoise in my garden".

"We don't really handle tortoises". I know tortoises are much sought after, and the owners will be looking for it, so I ask "Have you tried ringing the local vets?".

"Yes, they weren't interested".

If this truly is a lost tortoise, we know we will be able to find a new home for it very easily. So I ask where it is - about ten minutes' drive away. And, yes, she has it safely in a box, so it won't have wandered off by the time we get there. I take her address and say we'll come out and get it.

That's when she says "It's got the number 46 on it's shell". 

It definitely belongs to someone then. But not at number 46 in her r
oad, because she's already been there. And she's asked five houses either side of where she lives.

By this time, supper's ready, so we eat. Then a quick change into a Reptile Events shirt, pick up the rescue kit (medium sized box, anti-bac, newspaper, gloves, etc.) and head out.

It's a very pretty tortoise. And it does have the number 46 on its shell .... but not painted, like a house number. This is a sticker, saying "46", so it means something .... but what? We take the tortoise, and leave a card with the finder, in case she hears any more about it. 

Even though we're pretty sure that the 46 is not a house number, we decide to try one road each way from where it was found, just in case. Ten minutes later, we're one street away when the phone rings.

"Someone's told me you may have my tortoise. He's got the number 46 on his shell".

We know that tortoises are valuable, and someone may have heard that a woman had found a tortoise with the number 46 on his shell, so we're still a little cautious until the caller says "We named him after Valentino Rossi, because he's such a quick little ****!"

That explains the sticker! Two minutes later, Rossi the tortoise - who has been missing for three days - is reunited with his owner.

We learn that Rossi's owner, a motorbike fanatic (obviously), has been told that the best time to look for a lost tortoise is in the early morning and evening, in the half-light, so he was out looking in the road for him a few minutes earlier when a neighbour, coming home from work on his motorbike, stopped to have a chat. As neighbour got ready to ride off, Rossi's owner joked "Be careful where you go! Please don't run over my tortoise!"

Neighbour gets home, and the first thing his wife says to him is "You'll never guess what I've been baby-sitting all day" 

"Yes I will - a tortoise!"

And remember that the finder had asked at five houses either side from hers? Rossi lives six doors away!


The blog returns ....

posted 4 Apr 2016, 04:31 by Lucas Rudge

It being the start of a new season, I think I can be allowed a new year’s resolution – to write at least one Handler’s Blog entry each month.

Easter Egg Hunts – of which we attended two this year – tend to appeal to our younger audience. This means three things for handlers:

  • More children stroking the animals;
  • People holding the animals for shorter times; and

  • Parents trying not to show their fear in front of their children.

The first two of these may have a direct consequence for the animals. Young children can unintentionally be heavy-handed when stroking, and may also “grab”, and the animals may show signs of anxiety if they are repeatedly picked up and put down. Both of these have to be managed by careful observation of both the public and the animals – I have become quite adept at discretely keeping animals just out of reach, or keeping a couple of fingers between the animal and a small hand so that I am the one that gets squeezed.

Scared parents may decide either to dodge the issue (“I just need to check on times for the next arena to display; Mummy will help you with the nice snakes”), or to face it. All of the handlers have come across parents whose hands have been shaking, or who have discretely wiped away tears once they hand the snake back, and we do try to make handling as easy as possible for them.  After all, we don’t want the children to pick up their parents’ fear either.

So it’s an observation game for the handlers. Of course it always is, but events aimed at younger children do carry specific risks.

They may carry special opportunities for some fun as well – and I apologise to the parent who I told “Our snakes love the Easter Bunny .... Well, the larger ones do, anyway”.  The Easter Egg Hunt at Layham's Farm involved finding toy animals tagged with letters (e.g. "Find the rabbit wearing a dressing gown/the dog wearing a bow tie") and then spelling out a word with the letters on their tags. I've made a mental note that, if I'm there next year, I'm taking some ribbon to tie round a snake, and my own tag .....



The Snake in The Matchbox

posted 5 Jul 2014, 09:30 by Lucas Rudge

(written by Jane Darnbrough and posted on her behalf)

For a little while, our “Forthcoming Events” has listed for 3rd-5th July – Surprise evening event in West Wickham.

I can now reveal that Citrine and I have been appearing in The Matchbox Theatre’s “Brush up Your Shakespeare”.

This was a full evening (including supper) of pieces by, concerning or inspired by .... erm .... William Shakespeare to celebrate the 450th anniversary of his birth. We appeared in a specially-written 15 minute item based around Antony & Cleopatra.


Imagine the scene: BBC2 are filming Antony and Cleopatra, but filming has been delayed by Caesar’s “little problem”. Now we’re at the final scene; Antony is dead, and Cleopatra is to be taken to Rome and publicly displayed – but she would rather die, so arranges for a “rural fellow” to bring her a venomous asp hidden in a basket of figs.

BBC2 has gone to great expense to secure the great actress Gillian Henderson (with an H) for the role of Cleopatra, and all is going well with the scene until, having said her farewells to her two handmaidens (one of whom drops dead from grief), she removes the lid from the fig basket and …

“What the ..? “

“Brian – where’s the ruddy snake?”

So it’s down to the stage manager, Tristan (who has clearly been driven to his limits by previous happenings), to reassure her, get her back on track, and explain that there is a real snake, but they didn’t want him in the basket under the studio lights for too long in case he … well … cooked.

There IS a real snake; Tristan wrote the memo himself. He’s about 10-12 inches long and he’s called Romeo. Romeo the Asp.

“Can we have the snake now please!”


At this stage, I should make it clear that The Matchbox Theatre had kept it secret that there was going to be a real snake on stage – in fact, even the girl playing Charmian, one of the handmaidens, hadn’t mentioned it to her parents before they came on first night – so no-one was expecting me to walk on stage with an albino Burmese python round my shoulders.


The two handmaidens, chamberlain, rural fellow and make-up lady scattered. Tristan dived (literally) behind the chaise longue. And Miss Henderson, of course, fell completely in love with Romeo and asked to hold him.

The props department had made a slight mistake. Instead of requesting “one pale-coloured snake, 10 to 12 inches long” they wrote “10 to 12 feet” ….

Tristan – doing his best to sort things out on the last possible day of shooting (“There is no tomorrow. Downton Abbey is in here tomorrow”) – while keeping as far away from the snake as possible, ran through various options. Ever helpful, I suggested that they “jiggle the ending a bit, so that Cleopatra was constricted – squished – by a python rather than being poisoned”.

Tristan was clearly unimpressed by this idea; this production was, after all, for a discerning BBC2 audience. But he was over-ruled.

“We’re going to need a bigger basket”.

So after a short break, they restarted, but it didn’t go well from the start. The rural fellow left the basket - now a big 'Ali Baba' type - and stage as quickly as he could, cutting a fair bit of script and leaving the basket in the wrong place. This threw out the two handmaidens who weren’t prepared for their entrances and had great difficulty in moving the basket. Then when the one dropped dead she fell in the wrong place, so Cleopatra had to kick the chaise longue backwards before she could sit down.

The script had been “jiggled” to talk of “thy immortal squeezing”, but when Ms Henderson removed the lid from the basket she found …  well, several rather strange objects .... but none of them was the snake! He’d escaped! 

Cue one distraught handler searching the stage, calling out “Romeo, Romeo? Where are you Romeo?”



It was tremendous fun, and we’ve been happy to work with The Matchbox Theatre on this. I rather hope we get the chance to so so again (although I'm not sure how we can follow this. 

You can see their blog at http://matchboxtheatre.wordpress.com/ - it’s bound to have some photos now that the cat is out of the bag – or, rather, the snake is out of the basket.

My personal thanks to Victoria Pearce for writing a wonderful script and directing it brilliantly, to Gillian Challenger for being “electric – positively jolting” in the role of Gillian Henderson/Cleopatra, and to Will Rowlands for working patiently with a novice (most of my lines were to him), and especially for not making me laugh too much.

Citrine, of course, managed to upstage everybody. 


UPDATE: A film of part of the piece is linked from The Matchbox Theatre's Blog:  http://matchboxtheatre.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/brush-up-your-snakespeare/


posted 29 Oct 2013, 05:45 by Lucas Rudge

Well, we're three nights into our eight night booking as part of PhoboPhobia and The London Bridge Experience. TLBE markets itself as "London's Scariest Attraction", and PhoboPhobia is their extra-scary Hallowe'en show, so it's not for the faint-hearted!

I've been posting my own Facebook update each morning, and rather than write a separate blog here I will copy those in, just to give you a taste of what's happening.

Posted 27 October
Spent last night in the gloom surrounded by screams, rattling chains, air cannons, chain saws, and blood-spattered lunatics.
Posted 28 October
Last night I was standing in a dimly lit study, leaning against a book-case, with a bearded dragon on my shoulder, a seven-inch millipede in my left hand and an albino Royal python around my right wrist.

As one couple passed me the woman said to her partner "Are they real?"

I spoke: "Oh yes, they're real!"

"****!" swore her partner. "The person's real as well!"
Posted 29 October
A rather "quiet" evening last night. I was working in the study again, but had very few people through who were scared of the reptiles (although the millipede caused a few shudders), and no-one demanded to be let out at the first section (the night before there were four couple who refused to go through the first corridor, despite having bought tickets for "London's Scariest Attraction".

So who w...as scared the most? Was it the group of seven or eight lads in their twenties who med my lizards and millipede, and then, as they were moving on, screamed like girls when I lifted a shed snake skin from the bureau and said "Oh, I appear to have lost my snake!" Or was it me, when the Welcomer (a permanent staff member) explained to me that we were in the most haunted part of the building, and told me a couple of tales, then said "Anyway, I need to go and pick up the next group" - and left me, alone in the dim red lamplight, with just a rather mysterious dummy and a backing tape of gurgles, screams, and ghostly voices?
Posted 30 October
Once in a while it happens .... We had one of our toy furry snakes suspended from the exit to our working area, and last night it "walked" after a large group passed through. We told the nearest performers, and word got back to the exit point to keep an eye out for it, but it wasn't found.

Word also got back to the Top Man (who is somewhat afraid of reptiles) that one of the snakes had gone missing....

Posted 31 October
Since the lizards and millipedes appear to like me best (Emma's hand is still purple from working with the millies on
Saturday), I'm going to be in the study for the rest of the week.

Last night
my "Welcomer", Alice found a new "scare". Having called the group to come and play she ran ahead into the darkness, leaving the group to meet me. Once people had had their fill of my reptiles, and were feeling more confident (oh, it's not so scary; I can handle this) I directed them along a pitch black corridor, telling them that Alice needed new playmates. Except she wasn't at the end of the corridor, she was half-way down - but despite her pale skin, long red hair and white nightgown, they couldn't see her until they were six inches away.

If you can get people screaming before they've even started the trip, you're doing it right!

Posted 1 November
Well, last night was the big one! Advanced sales were closed at 1,300 people, and there were walk-ins as well.

A long, tiring, hot evening - that I'd do again without hesitation! For Hallowe'en I added a hooded black cloak, and stayed motionless while my Welcomer gave her greetings, then lifted my arms to show the giant millipede and Royal python in my hands ..... Some great reactions! 

Posted 2 November
I can normally tell our two millipedes apart quite easily; Kilo is grumpy and stays tightly coiled when you pick him up, while Millie is friendly and wanders around. Except last night, when I went to pick one up for handling, both were out and about. After 40 minutes or so I thought I might have the wrong one - the fact that he was trying to nibble the back of my hand was a bit of a giveaway - but it was well over an hour before I knew for sure, and I have a couple of small purplish stains on my hand from his secretions to prove it.

A lovely night - loads of people touching a snake for the first time and finding it really wasn't as expected - and one lovely lady telling me "You have the coolest job ever!" Yes, I do - except that it isn't actually my job (that's something else entirely) - but I really wish it was!

Posted 3 November
So sad that last night was my last at PhoboPhobia at The London Bridge Experience - although it will be nice to get some sleep!

Over the last eight nights I've heard a lot of screaming, a fair bit of moderate swearing, frequent shouts of "No, I'm not going in there! You go first!", and many weird noises from the actors, but last night topped it all.

A group of four, I would say in their early forties, were brought in by the Welcomer. They had a short, confident encounter with the animals, and were then sent into the pitch blackness. I heard a few gasps but no screams as they made their way down the corridor and encountered some surprises, then the squeal of brakes, crashing sounds and a flash of light as "the train" came out of the darkness and stopped a few inches away from them. Then a male voice .... "Bloody train drivers!"
After word
An amazing experience! I've been desperately short of sleep, but I would not have missed it for the world! I've met so many people who've said "I can't do snakes!" and then found that they could, and actually rather liked them; so many who've said "I've always wanted to touch a snake" and had the chance to do so. I've met so many talented and - let's face it - twisted actors, and been welcomed as part of the family (I'm not sure what that says about me ....). It has been a privilege. 

Can I do it again next year please?


Quite an Experience

posted 22 Oct 2013, 04:58 by Lucas Rudge

At Reptile Events we do a fair bit of work with schools, youth organisations (Scouts, Guides, etc.) as well as fairs and fetes, but one in a while something different comes along.

I work in central London, so when I was asked if I was free to help with an evening event in SE1 I was more than happy to say yes. So last night I found myself running a handling at a closed evening at The London Bridge Experience ...
It wasn't quite as simple as that. With no driver available to transport the animals, I had to collect them and take them up to London by public transport, carefully packed so as not to cause any alarm. Yes, it was Snakes on a Train!
On arrival I was shown to the performers' Green Room, where people in rather gruesome make-up (Jack the Ripper's victim, chainsaw murderer, etc.) came and went, exchanging intriguing snippets of conversation, and sometimes being rather scared of the snakes!
Just before six we were shown through to the café area and set up. Then, as the guests arrived, they were greeted by a costumed cast member with a tray of drinks on one side, and two of us with Jade, Amber, Marble, Blossom and Pearl - and a very grumpy giant African millipede - on the other side. At least, we had Jade until one of the performers (who happened to be 7'4" tall) decided to "borrow" him and mingle with the guests. As people who have seen us work know, we don't normally go out into the public in case we scare someone, but as this guy was already pretty scary we decided it was ok. And, of course, Jade being himself, anchored himself on the man's shoulders and went "up". Being a pale snake in spooky lighting, this made him resemble a living hangman's noose.

As small groups of guests went round the show we were left to talk to the others, and it was interesting that many of the people who were there to enjor a "fright night" really were scared of the reptiles. But, with time to talk and introduce the animals, quite a few people got to overcome their fears and hold a snake for the first time.

A different and enyoyable night - I scarcely noticed four hours pass! Then to wipe the make-up and fake blood off Jade, pack everyone up, and head back to the train ....


Food for thought?

posted 16 Sep 2013, 13:20 by Lucas Rudge

Tonight is one of our feeding nights.
We're still on our summer schedule of feeding all the snakes once a week but, with the number we have and the requirement to have animals available for each booking, it means we're operating two or three feeding groups.

The first thing we have to consider is whether we need to take snakes out, because they can't be moved for around 48 hours after feeding - so no Tuesday night supper if they're going to Scouts on Wednesday. Once we've worked out who's getting fed on a particular night, we have to estimate what each one will eat (chicks, mice of various sizes, rates, and occasionally - including tonight - quails), and how many. Then we take what we need out of the freezer (as far as possible we avoid live feeding) and arrange it on metal thawing trays.

I should, at this point explain that, when I say "we" I mean Emma and Luc. The first I generally know about it is when I get home from work, go to the kitchen to make a coffee, and find myself face to face with three or four trays of defrosting mice and chicks.
With just a couple of exceptions we do not feed the snakes in their own vivariums; that can lead to an animal linking the opening of the vivarium glass with being fed, and may increase the risk of the feeder getting bitten. Instead, we move them into the same boxes we use for travel and shows. Each snake gets put into a separate box, and the thawed out food is offered on tweezers. Some of the snakes will eat their food at room temperature but other want it blood heat, so we have our own variation of "boil in the bag". Some snakes will grab, coil and swallow their food immediately (Amber, Sandstone and Jade are the greediest), but others like privacy, so the boxes are stacked and covered with a dark sheet, and left overnight.

The following morning, we check through all the boxes to see if anyone hasn't eaten; there are usually one or two, perhaps as a prelude to going into shed, or perhaps because they just weren't hungry. The snakes that don't eat will be observed and, if they're not shedding, included in the next feeding round.

Of course, some of the food can take a substantial time to defrost, so that particular feeding will be put back a night. For example, Citrine's quails were taken out at the same time as the mice for the royal pythons this evening, but she won't be fed until tomorrow night - so she won't go to the Beaver Group we are visiting on Wednesday, but will be available for the weekend.

It's a major job, requiring a fair bit of planning. Obviously we also have to keep records of what frozen food we have bought and what we've used, otherwise we could find that we don't have enough to go around.


The Rewards of Volunteering

posted 11 Sep 2013, 11:36 by Lucas Rudge

Whenever I'm helping out as a handler at a fair or fete I try (if I can get off stand) for a few minutes, to go and spend some money at one of the organisers' stalls - perhaps buy some cakes or some raffle tickets, or take part in a skill game - jut something to put some of my own money towards the main charity of the event.

Last Saturday we were at an event organised by the Round Table, who do some great charitable work. During a shower of rain we were reasonably quiet, so I dashed over to buy a couple of raffle tickets. I didn't hear any draw taking place at the end of the event, but if I'm engaged with a member of the public I can become oblivious to outside sounds.

Then I saw on Facebook that the draw was actually made the following day, and winners would be notified. I didn't hear anything on either Sunday or Monday, so assumed I hadn't won anything (well, the odds for me winning can't have been that good, anyway). 

I was just settling down to supper last night when I had a 'phone call asking if anyone would be available at home to accept my prize today! There was, and I've arrived home from work to find a bottle of red wine and another of port waiting for me.


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